Hayley Kiyoko, the 27-year-old singer, songwriter, actress and director, is impacting the pop music industry in a whole new way: authentically. Some of us may remember her from her role as Velma in the Scooby Doo films or from her days on Disney Channel, guest-starring on a handful of episodes of "Wizards of Waverly Place" before getting a big break in the Disney movie, "Lemonade Mouth," a story of five teenagers busting onto the music scene.
The movie, now seven years old, can't even serve as a foreshadow of Kiyoko's career, as her stardom has taken on a life of its own. In a space where it's difficult to be outwardly and openly queer, Kiyoko manages it quite well. Her dedication to authentic storytelling doesn't come from a place of network-demanded bare minimum queer rep, it comes from somewhere much more personal.
The video accompaniment for "Girls Like Girls" made its way into 2015...and its legacy has continued into 2018. Though it wasn't Kiyoko's first self-directed video, it was her first video that captured a complex love story between two women. She chose not to star in the video and instead took on her role behind the camera, crafting a tender and heartwarming story of two women embracing their love for each other. This sort of original and theme has continued into the rest of Kiyoko's self-directed videos, from "Cliff's Edge" to "Gravel To Tempo" (a personal favorite) to this year's "What I Need."
The music video, featuring queer singer & songwriter Kehlani, captures the essence of what Kiyoko dubbed #20GAYTEEN at the start of the new year. The song (from her latest album Expectations), an upbeat, poppy plea for the woman of Kiyoko's desire to commit, is catchy, smooth, and empowering. The video? Even better. It could pass as a short film; without giving away too many spoilers if you haven't yet seen it, the chemistry between Kiyoko and Kehlani is palpable, honest, and relatable. A video about two queer women of color should be the norm, but it often isn't.
"What I Need" depicts a loving and successful attempt by Kiyoko to accurately tell a story about two women in love without it being sexualized or tokenized. It's breathtaking, on-the-edge-of-your-seat exhilarating while simultaneously being a breath of fresh air. The platinum-haired director has been at the receiving end of waves of praise for the representation she has given the LGBTQ+ community. Her identity as a lesbian is not a trope and Kiyoko's art doesn't make it seem like one. Rather, it feels comfortable to sink into the colorful world of a woman who loves women and has a clear vision for how she wants to portray it.
Kiyoko's willingness to share so much of her herself with her audience is admirable. Her sexuality, while it is the subject of countless headlines, is only one aspect of her. She's not simply a lesbian artist, she is an artist who is a lesbian. As stated in an interview with Refinery29, "Sure, I'd love for people to just like me, and my music. But if I don't allow labels, there's no way to normalize them.
Over time, my existence alone will help people see that a lesbian singer is just a singer. So while I might not want to constantly be asked about my sexuality and just be me, a big part of me is my love of women. So I guess I'm talking about it until it's no longer seen as something to talk about." There's a lot to love about Kiyoko, from her overwhelming energy to her optimism to her genuine nature, along with the strong sense of independence and creative direction she has with her music. Kiyoko has set our expectations high and her body of work indicates that she has every intention of raising them.